An upland hunting adventure that had appealed to me for several years was a horseback hunt for prairie grouse. Particularly behind my own English Setters. After no small amount of networking outfits in the plains states offering such a specialized hunt it was decided to sign up for a 4 day hunt with Jeff Gillespie. Jeff’s outfit is headed under Tinker Kennels located near the National Grasslands around Pierre, South Dakota. The paradigm I had visualized was happily realized during the 1st mornings hunt as the horses & dogs were unloaded on a obscure farm lane amidst a vast sea of prairie grass. Our host was an English Setter enthusiast as well however he was as excited to see our grouse dogs perform on this expansive prairie as we were. I had absolute confidence in the abilities of my 4 year old Ryman Setter “Prairie” as she started her 1st casts. Though she had little exposure to horses she had plenty of experience on wild open country game birds in Kansas, North Dakota, Montana. Sharptail grouse & prairie chickens were the quarry. It didn’t take long for the dogs to make game & we were treated to a small covey flush albeit out of range. Conditions improved with decreased wind velocity & the birds held nicely after a fumble or two. Throughout the day & following 3 days the scenario was repeated with many more shooting opportunities over staunch points.
We found ourselves riding casually on solid quarter horses over ground that often appeared as it must have 150years ago. Interrupted only by an occasional broken fence or rutted farm track. No trees, no houses, no row crops,,, grass, coulees & big sky filled the expansive landscape to the horizon & beyond.
Being a lifelong horseback rider proved to be an advantage. Sitting the saddle trying to focus on the work of the dogs while remaining comfortable could wear down an inexperienced rider/hunter. The hunts were of 1 1/2 to 2 hour duration. Running 2 - 3 dogs per brace, platooning them with our host Setters while breaking for frequent water stops. There is no shooting from horseback, though the horse’s were conditioned to close gunfire. Dismounting and walking up the point is the regimen. Some agility in mounting, dismounting is paramount. The points, depending on the wind, are often a result of the dogs making game 50 - 80 yards, sometimes twice that distance. A quick dismount, safe removal of the gun from the scabbard, followed by hustling up to the point puts the gunner in position. These prairie grouse are not at all opposed to running collectively in a covey. Dogs must be adept at relocating without bumping birds while the gunner must keep up. On occasion this involves a 200 yard+ pursuit before the covey holds. Shooting opportunities varied from singles flushing underfoot to barrel strainers of over 45 yards. With disciplined, honest pointing dogs most of the shooting opportunities are in 25 - 40 yard range. My vintage 16 bore double was adequate most of time. Though the chokes were probably a little open for this country, I didn’t believe I lost many opportunities. Like any other wild game birds the more pressure they are exposed to the jumpier they become. Jeff had an abundance of private ground to hunt so we never hunted the same piece twice.
Anyone with the expectation of bagging a daily limit of 3 prairie grouse in combination will likely be disappointed. The opportunities will present themselves but it’s not realistic to expect heavy game bags every outing. Going for the unique experience of watching the graceful performances of the dogs casting over the immense country while rocking in the saddle upon a solid mount remains the eminent gratification for me. That simple pleasure is what will induce a return to the prairies for my setters & I.